A male nursing aide has been sentenced to a year in jail for sexually assaulting a 78-year-old woman with dementia in a case that advocates say underscores the problem of violent crimes committed in Minnesota’s senior homes.

The aide, David E. DeLong, 60, was discovered with his pants down, sweating and breathing heavily, near the woman’s bed on May 8, 2016, at Heritage House in Pequot Lakes, according to police reports. The victim was found partly naked and lying in a fetal position, with her nightgown pulled up above her waist. DeLong later provided a DNA sample that matched semen found on the victim.

The case has provoked outrage from senior care advocates and has raised deeper questions about the often-secretive process for responding to violent crimes in senior homes. Relatives of the victim said they were never told by Heritage House staff, local police or state officials of the assault, and as a result they didn’t immediately move her to a different facility or arrange therapy for her trauma. Handling of the incident also frustrated efforts by prosecutors, because family members can play a major role in pushing for tougher sentences.

A five-part Star Tribune investigative series found that such secrecy is common in elder abuse cases because of state rules governing senior care investigations by the Minnesota Department of Health. Last year, facilities reported more than 20,000 incidents of abuse and neglect to the Health Department, which regulates the senior care industry. Such reports are kept confidential; in fact, the facility is not required to notify relatives when it files one.

Advocates seek changes

The chairwoman of the Minnesota Senate Committee on Aging and Long-term Care, as well as a several advocacy groups, have called for changes to state law to give abuse victims and their families greater access to facility reports of maltreatment as well as state investigations.

“You can’t help someone that you don’t even know about,” said Suzanne Scheller, an elder abuse attorney from Champlin. “We need to double our efforts to ensure that the people who need to know about these crimes are finding out about them.”

Police also found multiple breakdowns in Heritage House’s handling of the assault. The victim’s nightgown and mattress pad were placed in a washing machine after the assault, destroying potential evidence and making it more difficult to prosecute DeLong, prosecutors said. In addition, staff at Heritage House waited nearly two hours to report the crime to police, and did so only after sending DeLong home for the night.

The victim’s son, Robert Krause, 60, of Pequot Lakes, blames the assault and the mishandling of the case for his mother’s rapid physical and emotional decline last summer. His mother, Jean Krause, a former nurse, died four months and a week after the assault.

“My mother was completely and utterly defenseless,” said Krause, who spoke at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing. “She couldn’t move. She couldn’t raise her arm. She couldn’t even cry out for help.”

Prosecutors initially charged DeLong with six counts of criminal sexual conduct, all felonies. However, five of the charges were dropped due to concerns over a lack of physical evidence. DeLong eventually pleaded guilty to one count of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, which involves force or coercion, in a negotiated deal. He was sentenced Wednesday to one year in jail and 10 years’ probation. He also is required to register as a sex offender and undergo specialized treatment.

The 2016 assault was just the latest in a long list of health and safety problems for the owners of Heritage House, which operates 11 other senior care facilities across the state.

In a highly unusual move, Minnesota Heritage House in September forfeited its licenses to provide home care services at its assisted-living facilities in Pequot Lakes, Kimball and Adrian, Minn., after state regulators uncovered recurring violations of state law. Since late 2015, Heritage House has received more than 80 new and repeat orders to correct violations, including some that resulted in serious injury, impairment or death of residents, according to a consent order reached with regulators.

 

Twitter: @chrisserres